Boston Awakens To Its Jazz Roots

JazzBoston exposes new listeners to the city’s vibrant music

I have often reported here on jazz societies that preserve the history of jazz in their city while nurturing the music in its current state. But for me there’s always been a gaping hole: no such celebratory organization in Boston, where I was deeply involved in the jazz scene throughout the 1940s and early ’50s, until I moved to New York in 1953.

With a weekly radio show on WMEX and remote broadcasts from jazz clubs, I got to know many now-iconic visitors such as Duke Ellington and Sidney Bechet. They taught me so much, not only about jazz but also about how to keep on digging into my inner needs and self-surprises through this music.

At last I have discovered the five-year-old JazzBoston, an organization “dedicated to building and serving audiences for jazz music, fostering and expanding opportunities for jazz musicians,” and, to my delight, “raising Boston’s profile as one of the world’s greatest jazz cities.” The spirit of Samuel Adams’ Sons of Liberty and their Tea Party lives on!

In so short a time, this organization, headed by Pauline Bilsky, has become a model for organizers in other cities and regions by creatively awakening Bostonians to their city’s vital roots in the continuing history of jazz. For one example—there’ll be more in my next column—this year, from April 29 through May 8, the fifth-annual “Jazz Week” was officially proclaimed by the mayors of Boston, Cambridge and Somerville (Greater Boston) and celebrated “with events in venues ranging from clubs, galleries and churches to libraries, universities, shopping malls and hotels.” During my years at the public Boston Latin School, founded in 1635, not a note of jazz was ever heard.

On JazzTimes.com (May 4), Lee Mergner was ahead of me in citing JazzBoston’s award for jazz radio host Eric Jackson. To recognize his 30 years on the air, Jackson received the Roy Haynes Award “for exceptional contributions to jazz and the jazz community.” (The award was established last year and the first to receive it was, as you’d expect, Haynes himself.) This reminded me of a Sunday jam session in my youth at the Savoy, a jazz club at the edge of the black section of town. I practically lived there when I wasn’t working.

On that day, clarinetist Edmond Hall was on the stand with his band, and a kid—he seemed to be about 15—asked to sit in on drums. Edmond welcomed him and Haynes, then a student at Roxbury Memorial High School near where I lived, seized the audience. Joyously swinging the band with fire and grace—they can be combined—he was the star of the session.

More than 50 years later, at a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters lunch in New York, I was sitting next to Roy and reminded him of his bombshell Sunday at the Savoy. He smiled and said, “You know, when I was a kid, I used to listen to your Jazz Album show on WMEX.” Two Boston boys linked for life by jazz.

Thrilled at finding JazzBoston, I also discovered its co-founder Bob Young, a freelance writer for Jazziz and the Boston Herald on jazz and much of the rest of the music scene. Over the years, he tells me, “It became increasingly clear that the various jazz camps in town—mainstream, avant-garde, smooth, swing, Latin, etc.—simply did their own thing and rarely talked with each other.”

But what all of them shared, he continues, “was a common frustration that it was becoming harder and harder to get people to pay attention to the jazz they were performing or presenting.”

What Young then did is another model for other jazz missionaries around the country. Formulating an outline for a nonprofit that would “pull together a united front dedicated to supporting, promoting and growing the entire scene here long-term,” he and other unifiers recruited “musicians, presenters, publicists, club owners, representatives from the colleges, and anyone else who had a stake in the success of jazz in Boston.”

Then, with the quality of flowing precision that characterized John Lewis’ Modern Jazz Quartet, “we developed a strategy, organization structure and business plan and assembled a founding Board and Advisory Council that represented every part of the city’s jazz community.”

Recruited was a pro-bono attorney who got JazzBoston incorporated and also gained it tax-exempt status. A membership program has become JazzBoston’s principal source of funding, and a monthly e-newsletter covers “all things jazz in and around the city.”

As a constant enthusiast of the Boston Public Library system almost as soon as I could read, I’m impressed that JazzBoston partners with this library’s branch system in Riffs & Raps—Find Your Jazz!, a community-based after-school program for teenagers. And all this is only the beginning for JazzBoston.

Back at the Savoy in the 1940s, Jo Jones told this writer how he taught jazz musicians by telling them, “You can do what very few people can do. You can reach people, but to move them you have to be all open. You have to let everything in you out. And you have to be in condition to play what you hear inside you.” But first you have to actually be able to reach the listeners, period, and JazzBoston is showing us all how to make that happen.

I’d like to hear of other movements around the country trying to expose new listeners to this life-quickening music. JT

Nat Hentoff can be contacted at 212-366-9181

Originally published in September 2011

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